Richmond Story: Camp Merriewood-Harrison
Many local organizations provided camp experiences to Richmond children over the decades, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA and YWCA, Weinstein Jewish Community Center, among others. This post focuses on a brief history of one specific local children’s camp – Camp Merriewood-Harrison.
As summer winds down and families fill parks for respite amidst the latest COVID surge, let’s be thankful for both the availability of vaccines and greenspace to keep us safe and sane in these trying times. Fresh air has long been a reliable remedy for what ails us.
For more than two centuries – before zoning, sewage treatment, widespread vaccines, water treatment, pollution regulation, and building codes – Richmond’s residents had suffered routine disease outbreaks. From typhoid to polio, our crowded, dirty, and unregulated urban center was a hotbed of health risks, especially for children. One of the biggest threats to Richmond children from the 18th to the early 20th century was tuberculosis.
In the 19th century, tuberculosis was responsible for approximately 25% of deaths in this country, and in Europe. Before the vaccine, the best defense against “the white plague” was a healthy constitution and fresh air, in short supply for many impoverished Richmond children. In response, the Richmond Tuberculosis Association and the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association opened a summer camp in 1925, for white, at-risk city children. The camp inhabited 15 acres in Chesterfield County and was completely supported by donations. Initially called the Merriewood-Harrison Nutrition Camp, the camp accepted children singled out by school nurses and welfare agencies as being particularly vulnerable for tuberculosis infection. Local churches, women’s clubs, and civic groups would then financially sponsor the children chosen to attend. In the camp’s first summer, 80 boys and girls spent a few weeks under a strict regimen of meals, naps, weigh-ins, and outdoor play. Each child slept in an open-sided pavilion, consumed two quarts of milk per day, and generally had a fantastic time in the woods. Many had only ever played in Richmond alleys and streets. After their first summer, the camp nurses reported an average weight gain of nine and a half pounds per child. After a child returned home, the camp provided in-home health education and monitoring for at least one year.
The introduction of the first tuberculosis vaccine in the late 1920s did not immediately diminish the threat of the disease. Poverty, vaccine hesitancy, lack of access, limited efficacy, and asymptomatic infections kept the disease an ongoing problem in the United States for decades. By the summer of 1948, Camp Merriewood-Harrison was still busy attending to 180 at-risk children, chosen from more than 300 applicants. The three separate groups of 60 children, who stayed for four weeks at a time, now had a swimming pool.
Into the 1950s, the threat of tuberculosis began to wane and prompted a shift in the camp’s mission from tuberculosis, which was associated with poverty, to general health and supervision for poor, urban—and still white—children. As divorce rates climbed in the 1960s, the camp also focused their efforts on children from “broken homes.” Diet and health remained important, but the mental and physical benefits of outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, archery, camping, and swimming moved to the forefront. One 1964 camp employee claimed to have worked with children who had never before seen a tree, which is most likely an exaggeration but not too far off from the truth.
Camp Merriewood-Harrison closed in the late 1960s without a clear reason for the decision. Fundraising had always been an uphill battle, and even more so without a specific deadly disease to combat. Also, at that time, with the crumbling of segregation, many institutions quietly closed rather than integrate. No matter the reason for the closure, the lessons of the camp remained with Richmonders who believed in the power of nature to heal, both physically and mentally. Around the time Merriewood-Harrison closed, the Kiwanis (a former sponsor of the camp) opened its own outdoor summer camp for disadvantaged youth, Camp Kiwanis. Keeping with contemporary social movements at the time, Camp Kiwanis was integrated and allowed for social interaction among children who may not otherwise cross paths.
Camp Merriewood-Harrison advocated a regimen of fresh air, good nutrition, and meaningful play to combat a debilitating infectious bacterial disease plaguing Richmond’s youth. Camp Kiwanis, on the other hand, activated nature’s most dynamic superpower – creating community to confront Richmond’s untreated social ills.